Sunday, August 2, 2015

Shadows In A Timeless Present War Memories From An American Girl In Europe During WWI


By Carita Spencer, Appointed Delegate Extraordinary by Minister Justin Godart, Under-Secretary of State and Head of French Service de Santé

Miss Spencer is an American girl who has been working heroically to relieve suffering in France through various American Committees, including the National Surgical Dressings Committee and also the "Food For France Fund," of which she acted as chairman. She recently collected her experiences under a little volume, the sale of which is devoted to War Relief. "The scenes and occurrences which are recorded in these pages," relates Miss Spencer, "made such a deep impression upon me and remained so vivid that I hope the recital of them may be found interesting to others. If any one is interested in sending assistance to a particular class of war sufferers suggested by the reading of these sketches, he or she may communicate with me at 10 East 58th Street, New York City." Copyrighted, 1916, by Carita Spencer.
Paris, April, 1916.

"La Légation de Belgique a l'honneur de faire connaître à Miss Spencer que Sa Majesté la Reine la recevra Vendredi prochain, 28 avril, à La Panne, à 2 heures et demie. Miss Spencer est priée de vouloir bien prevenir La Légation, du lieu et de l'heure ou on pourrait la faire prendre à Dunkerque ou à Calais."
For six weeks I had wondered where and how the door to the war zone would open, and here at last came the answer. "The Belgian Legation has the honour to inform Miss Spencer that Her Majesty, the Queen, will receive her on Friday at La Panne at half past two."... It was midnight when the letter came, too late to do anything until the morrow, when I must find the way to break all rules for civilians and get out of Paris in three hours instead of eight days.

My official invitation was certainly a wonderful gate-opener. Legations, embassy and war office armed me with the necessary papers in less time than it usually took to reach the sub-clerk in the commissaire's office. Dressed in my khaki suit and my little brown hat with the laurel leaves,—funny little hat, since become famous because so many officers thought I wore the leaves as a presage of victory in honour of the Allies,—with my small handbag, heavy coat and an umbrella, I reached the Gare St. Lazare with twenty minutes to spare. Ahead of me were two English officers, shiny and polished from head to foot, with their elaborate hand luggage all neatly marked. One might think they were running down for a week-end at the Casino. On all sides crowded sky-blue coated poilus, the faded dull looking sky-blue which blends into the horizon and helps to hide the French soldier from the keen-sighted Boche.

Have you ever stood by the gate to the trains and watched the men come up to go back to the front? Some come slowly, slouching along in their stiff boots under the weight of their heavy knapsacks and equipment, tired-eyed but determined. Others come running up in twos and threes, cheerful and carefree. Others come with their wives and children, their mothers, their sweethearts; and these do not talk, unless it be the tiny tots, too small to know what it is all about. Nor do they weep. They just walk up to the gate, kiss him good-by and stand aside, and look as long as their eyes can follow him. Sometimes he turns back, but not often. I watched a while, then I too went through, showing my papers to several inquisitive officials in succession.

Everything was quite like ordinary times until we passed E——, where we lost the last of the civilians on the train except myself. My compartment was quite empty, and as I stuck my head into the corridor it seemed as if the rest of the car were also empty. But no, there was a turkey gobbler in a wooden cage and in a moment a French officer bending over him with a cup of water. It seemed the gobbler, poor innocent bird, was on his way to make gay an officer's mess.

Soon we came to what still remains one of the most impressive sights of my trip, the miles of English reserve camp. Sand dunes, setting sun and distant sea, and tents, and barracks and tent, and men in khaki never ending! These bright, happy, healthy faces! Why, as the train crawled through them, so close I could shake hands out of the window, I fairly thrilled with the conviction that they could never be beaten. I wanted to shout at them: "Boys, I'm from over the water too, God bless you all!" But it choked in my throat, for they came from Canada and Australia and New Zealand to give their lives for a principle, while I came from the land "too proud to fight." (To-day, Aug., 1917, thank God, proudest of all to fight.)

There were the shooting ranges and the bayonet targets, burlaps the size of a man's torso stuffed with straw, hanging on a clothesline in a row. The boys stand off a hundred yards and with fixed bayonets charge the bursting burlap. But now, at sunset, they are sitting around in groups or playing games, waiting for their evening meal. They have not faced fire yet, but their turn is coming and they are keen for it.

The officer and the turkey descended at Boulogne and darkness closed down about the same time. There was only a shaded night lamp in the car, and the lonesomeness of the unknown began to take hold of me. The train crawled on about as fast as a horse would jog. I was hungry, as with civilian-like lack of forethought I had provided myself with no lunch or dinner. I sat close to the window, looking for the lights of Calais which never came. The train stopped and a kindly conductor with a white badge on his arm, which shows that he is mobilized, helped me to stumble out in the dark. There had been a "Zep" alarm, and not a single light was visible in the overcast night. I pushed along with groups of soldiers into the station, where, in an inner room, an officer sat at a small table with a small shaded safety lamp and examined passports. He was duly suspicious of me until I showed him the Legation paper. Stumbling and groping like the blind man in Blind Man's Buff, I was finally rescued by a small boy who piloted me across the bridge to a door which he said was the G—— hotel. They refused to give me food because not even a candle was permitted. In the dark I went to bed.

Early next morning I looked from the window on an animated square. Tommies, Tommies everywhere. Was it England after all instead of France? The Belgian réformé who will carry a limp to his dying day as his ever-present memory of the great war, and who acted as my chamberman, could not do enough for me when he heard that I was going to see his Queen. He spoke of her as of the dearest loved member of his family. She was a real Queen, he said. She loved and cared for the poor and suffering. He had even seen her once and she had smiled at him when he wore his uniform with his croix de guerre.

The palace motor came promptly at 12:30 and into it I got with my little bag, wondering whether I was going into Belgium to remain two hours, two days or two weeks. I noticed that the car had seen service. The glass was cracked even where protected by wire netting and the upholstering was threadbare in spots, but there was nothing the matter with the engine, and we whizzed along at a goodly pace....

We passed in and out of towns with guards at attention. Even at the frontier we were not stopped. The country was flat and the roads fearfully dusty. The heavy motor lorries and trucks which were constantly traveling with supplies from the base to the front interested me greatly, as they were the first I had seen in action. They came in groups of three to thirty, and the boys on the drivers' seats were so caked with dust I could hardly distinguish their features. My official motor carried a special horn which cleared the road of man and beast. The fields on all sides were tilled. I wondered who the workers were, when what do you think I saw? Forty children in a row, boys and girls, all ages, from the little tot to the boy who would next year be in the army, each with a hoe. In front of them stood an old man who beat time with a stick while the children plied the hoe, and I warrant they had a happy time doing it.

At last I knew we must be nearing La Panne, for soldiers became more numerous. There is always one division of the Belgian Army en repos at La Panne. The motor made several sharp turns, and as long as I live I shall never forget the scene. Warm sunshine, a sandy beach over an eighth of a mile wide—small breakers—a line of brightly coloured seaside houses and villas—little sloops on the sea and warships in the distance—cavalry manœuvering on the sands—the dunes at either end and behind neat white veiled nurses and brightly clad convalescent soldiers on the walk and in the sands—the distant booming of big guns, probably English—and the nearer sounds of practice rifle and machine gun firing.

In a small villa I met the Queen, pretty, charming and gracious, with wonderful eyes that seemed to look straight through me and beyond. We talked for quite a long time and she asked me what would interest me most to see in the little corner of Belgian Belgium. I replied that I should like to see everything that was being done in a constructive way for the soldiers, civilians, children. With the promise that my wish would be gratified I took my leave and was then escorted to the villa of the famous Dr. Depage, where I remained for a week as his guest. The hospital is a wonder of excellence in every way. Charming ladies efficiently shoulder the burdens of the trained nurse, and they and doctors work hours on end when the wounded come in crowds from the nearby trenches.

At sunset descended an English aeroplane on the beach. In a few minutes it was surrounded by a couple of hundred men in khaki, just as if they had sprung out of the ground. Then off it went, gracefully dipping in a low sweeping curve in front of the "palace," then soaring high as it struck out to sea. Then the beach guard changed, and suddenly over the front only a few miles away appeared a Belgian plane with German shrapnel bursting in little black puffs around it. I went with Dr. Depage to see the wounded arriving in the ambulances, and I took a thirty second peep at a leg operation in the doing. At dinner—a very frugal but good one—we talked of everything except war. And this was my first day at the front.


Trenches La Panne, May, 1916.

Seven o'clock in the morning and I had just returned from the trenches, fairly well-behaved trenches, but real ones nevertheless, for several German bullets had sought us as a target in the early morning mist. It was all unreal, for I saw nothing. Yet I had to believe it, for I heard.

Thanks to the courtesy of a gallant staff captain and a charming grey-haired general, I made this unique expedition. The captain and I started before daylight in the cold of a grey morning and rode to the trenches in a comfortable limousine. The fields about were desolate, even the trees destroyed. Here and there a heap of stones, the remains of a thrifty farm, sheltered a small company of soldiers. The roads were unspeakable, so deep the holes and ruts. We passed through P——. There were still a few walls standing, and there we picked up a piece of marble to make me a paper weight. I knew the Germans were not far off, for the cannonading was continuous about three miles down on our right. But for all I could see I might as well have been on the western prairies.

"What in the world is straw fixed up that way for?" I asked.

"That is a curtain of straw which stretches for miles along the road behind the trenches to hide our motors from the enemy. A motor means an officer, and if they could see us we would not be here long."

We stopped behind the straw screen and got out, crawling under it into a communication trench. I had better call them ramparts, for this district, you know, was the inundated land of the Yser. One hundred yards in this winding alley of concrete and sandbag wall and we reached the main trench, a solid substantial rampart of concrete, sandbags and earth, with the grass growing on the side facing the enemy. Here the soldiers on duty lived in their little cubby-holes in the wall. They slept in groups of fours, stretched out on clean straw with their guns beside them ready for sudden call. And, if you please, do not suppose that these domiciles went unnamed or unadorned. By the irony of fate the first wooden door we came to was thus inscribed, all in French, of course:

Villa "Ne T'en Fai pas"!

War with Notes!
Hurry up, you Neutrals!

How commonplace trench life has become after these two long years of habit! Nowadays men do not go to the office and the shop. They go up to the trenches for daily duties. These trenches we were in were main-line, where the enemy was not supposed to penetrate unless rude enough actually to break through. So the soldiers portioned off the rough earth beside the board walk that ran parallel to the rampart, and first they had a little vegetable garden, and next to it for beauty's sake a little flower garden, and next to that a little graveyard, and then the succession repeated. Five hundred yards beyond the main lines, across the inundated fields streaked with barbed wire sticking up out of the water, was the front line trench, a rougher rampart, mostly of earth, and when it rained, oh mud! Under cover of darkness the boys went out and returned, walking across a rickety board walk.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Those were sharp shots and sounded like business. They might become more personal than the steady heavy roar of guns sending up their smoke at D—— on our right. We dared not tarry, for the sun was coming up.

The Major of the line was waiting to greet us and offered us early morning refreshment in his dug-out. His dug-out was a cozy, comfy little place, two boarded rooms in the rampart wall, high enough to stand up in, and furnished with a cot and blankets and some chairs and a stove and a mirror and some pictures, and, yes, a latch on the door to enter by. If I had had no ears it would have been difficult to persuade me that there were men not far off who, without personal animosity, would gladly have landed a shell in our midst.

The war as I glimpsed it in the many phases I was able at last to touch upon always gave me the impression of running up against a blank wall of contradiction. To people who live week in and week out in the range of shell fire, life and death take on a new relationship. Death may come at any moment, and yet meantime life must be lived, and one can't live all the time at high pressure. Perhaps no more vivid instance of this came to me than when I was sitting in barracks near F—— as the guest of that wonderful woman, Mrs. I—— T——. Up with the dawn, she and her fellow worker slaved without intermission, caring for the poor civilians of F——. They taught and fed the kiddies, dispensed medical and even surgical help, going out across the fields through the darkness at any call; gave out food and clothing to the women who came daily to claim their portion. Then, the day's hard work over, came dinner, at which an officer or two, French, Belgian, English, even American, might drop in, and afterwards my hostess would sit at the piano and sing Debussy with a voice of beauty and volume, while all the time the guns would thunder, the aeros might be overhead, and men were being killed on all sides. One's mind hardly grasped it, but one's emotions ran high.


P——, May, 1916.

P—— was close by the famous Ypres and had the honour at the moment of being a bombarded town. Hardly a day passed that shells did not fall here in greater or less quantity. Have you ever been in a bombarded town? Gloom? You could cut it with a knife, and yet I could not make out why the gloom was so oppressive. The streets were full of soldiers—Tommies, Canadians, Australians—bustling about, cheerfully whistling, talking in groups or going about their individual duties. Peasant women were in evidence too, and the little shops had window displays; but oh the gloom! Many of the houses were destroyed and in some sections there was no such thing as a pane of glass left. The noise of the guns was almost constant.

I was staying in a hospital with the Countess V——, a front line ambulance in this section where fighting had been heavy. It was an old red brick building, probably the home of one of P——'s wealthier residents. The high-ceilinged rooms were bare of furniture and in its place were rows of cheap iron cots with a wounded man in each. The Countess was one of those charming, dainty feminine creatures with a will of iron and a courage beyond words. The story of her life during the first invasion of Belgium and her escape from German territory was thrilling. She came to P——, where she cared not only for this house full of wounded soldiers, but worked and planned with others the support and care of civilian wounded, men, women and little children, and of hundreds of little orphan boys and girls. My room was on the ground floor. It had half a window pane, one boarded-up window and some heavy blankets to hang up at night to hide the candle light from a prying aero. I simply can't describe the gloom. The Countess said that when she felt that she could not go on another minute, she just hunted out the box her husband had sent her when she got word to him that she had no more clothes and to send on some of her old ones. The box contained three filmy negligees, the ones he loved her best in. She got them out and spread them about the dismal room, and then she stood in the middle and laughed and cried until she felt better.

I sat outside on a bench one morning talking to a young Belgian officer who was so badly wounded the first year of the war that he will probably never go back to the front. We were talking of beautiful things, music, painting and such like. One of the ambulances drove in. He paid no attention, it was such a common occurrence, but I was all eyes. You have seen the ice wagon dripping on a warm day? The ambulance was dripping too, but the drops were red! One stretcher was lifted out and an orderly standing by raised the cover at one end. I saw something that had once been a head with a human face on it. The next stretcher contained a man wounded in the legs. One of the nurses spoke to him and he tried to smile. The next was carried without comment to the tiny stone hut in the fast-growing little graveyard just back of the house. These kind folk would find time to bury him and send a picture of his grave with a few words of how bravely he had died, together with the number of the chain at his wrist, to Headquarters to be forwarded to his family. And he was a cook who had never held a gun or seen an enemy. So they emptied the ambulance to the number of six and then they turned the hose on it and started it back for its next load. And may I tell you how the ever-present contrast came in here? Upstairs in the convalescent ward a boy, to cheer his comrades, was banging the jolliest kind of music on an old tin piano, impatiently waiting the day when he would be declared well enough to go back to be wounded again....


Orphelinats, P——, May, 1916.

We went on a long ride over the hills to visit the little Belgian orphans and see how they were being cared for on French soil. As there was no military motor available, and as, for the one and only time in my war travels, I was unarmed with papers to get me across the frontier, we decided to go the eighty miles in an ambulance, where I could hide in the back as we whizzed past the familiar sentries. Mlle. M——, in her well-worn khaki suit with the Red Cross badge, sat in front with the chauffeur. Within the ambulance, on the hard wooden bench, was I with that wonderful hero of Ypres, the Abbé of St. Pierre. What a face of strength and poise and thoughtfulness he had! To the people of that country he was a saint, specially protected by heaven. He seemed to have led a charmed life. He was the last to leave the battered ruins of the once beautiful Ypres. They say he saved even the cats before he would depart, and still the longing to return to his beloved town came over him so strongly that at times his friends had great difficulty in restraining him. He loved every stone and he godfathered every poor child of the village. Shells have burst all around him, killing those at his side, but, by some wonder of fate, have left him untouched. His smile was a delight, his conversation a charm.

Along the white, dusty road we flew, for we had many miles to cover and several stops to make. Every one is familiar with the beautiful rolling country of this part of France, the cultivated fields, the neat little villages, the white ribbon of road between the well-ordered rows of trees. I could not resist waving a triumphant salute at the astonished sentries when they realized they had let pass an ambulance with a civilian in it, and a woman at that! But the clouds of dust hid us from view before they could do anything about it. We passed through B——, a lovely little town way up on a hilltop, from which we could look down over the distant valley in whose heart the hostile lines of trenchmen fought for supremacy. We stopped here to leave a message with an officer and learned that nearly every one in the town was ill with a touch of asphyxiating gas. It seemed that the fumes had penetrated this far during the night, but were not strong enough to awaken people. So they had inhaled unconsciously. Every one sleeps with a gas mask at the head of his bed in these parts.
We coasted down the long hill on the other side of the town, glorying in the beauty of the extended view before us. How could there be anything but happiness in the world that brilliant morning! The Abbé and I talked of many things and he told me how he and the Countess planned and worked to get enough money and clothing for the hundreds of orphans in their care. If only some of the discarded but still useful warm clothing of my little friends in America could be sent! And think of the untold joy some of their superfluous toys would give!

Our first stop was to see the boys, and certainly for me it was a unique experience. The Abbé announced that a great treat was in store for us, as we were to lunch with the priests of W——, who ran the orphelinat. He told me to be sure to ask Father ——, the jolly, fat, old fellow, to sing and recite for us. He said it would please him enormously and would give us untold amusement, and he was right. We entered the courtyard of an old stone house, and after shaking off several layers of the white dust, went in to the bounteous feast prepared in our honour. The welcome was simple and cordial. We washed our hands in an old tin basin and used the coarsest towel I have ever seen. I am sure it will never wear out. Then we sat down to enough food for twenty instead of six, and how they did enjoy it! I don't wonder Father —— was almost as broad as he was long, if he enjoyed every meal as much as he did this one. He ordered up the wine from the cellar, the last precious bottle he had carried away from Ypres, and then, after much persuasion, he rose at his end of the table and in a dear, gentle, cracked old voice, mouthing his words so that his apparently one remaining front tooth was much in evidence, he sang the favourite songs of his youth. I am sure they were funny because he laughed at them so heartily himself.

Luncheon over, we walked to the boys' dormitories. How they did love the jolly old priest, and how glad they were to see the Abbé! From all corners of the courtyard they dropped their play or their fight, as the case was, and came running with all the joy of a pack of little tail-wiggling fox terriers, to throw themselves upon the two men. Where he carried it, I do not know, but the Abbé produced cake after cake of chocolate and every boy had a bite.

The boys are taught all the simple studies and always to sing. The Belgian peasant children really sing beautifully. Even the little tots can take parts. We went up through the dormitories. There were closely filled rows of cots graduated in size, and over the foot of each one the sisters in charge had neatly laid out the boy's other suit, for to-morrow would be Sunday and they would all be dressed up. The lavatories consisted of wooden benches, again graduated in height, with tin basins and towels on them, about one to every three boys. It made me shiver to think how cold that place must be during the long damp winter, but then the peasant is used to such hardships. Finally we came to the schoolroom, where the older boys were already hard at work, learning in both Flemish and French. And of all the cute sights I ever saw, here happened the very cutest. The tiny tots, three and four years old, had finished their lunch and their playtime, and must have their noon-day nap. Were they put to bed like ordinary babies? Oh, no. They tumbled into the schoolroom, their big eyes staring out of their chubby, round, little faces, full of wonder as to who the strange lady was. Somewhat abashed and very quietly they slid along their baby bench, snuggling up to each other as close as they could. Then at a word from the teacher all the little right arms went up on the long bench table in front of them, the perfectly round little heads flopped over into the crook of the row of little elbows, three blinks and all the little eyelids closed, and like peas in a pod they were asleep. How I wished for a moving picture of that scene!


Last we visited the chapel, of which Father —— was so proud. A little musty-smelling chapel with a crude figure of the Madonna in a high window niche at one end. Father —— had placed above it a pane of blue glass, of a blue which turned the sunlight into a wonderfully cool, pure colour. He said it was the emblem of hope to him, and that when his heart was heavy behind his cheerful smile, he would come in there alone to think and to pray.

We were in no hurry to go, but there was still a long stretch to be covered before we reached Wisques, where the girls were housed. So we said good-by to Father —, his priests, and his children. I only hope I may see them again some day.

Our ride was now enlivened by the presence of many aeroplanes, friendly ones, maneuvering now near the earth, now so high that they were almost lost to sight. They were probably indulging in preliminary exercises before scouting over the German lines.

Arrived at Wisques, we were welcomed by the nuns into the beautiful old château, now an orphan asylum. The Queen had recently paid a visit here and the whole place was decorated in her honour with coloured papers and garlands of leaves and branches. It had been a very great and wonderful occasion for the motherless little girls. Coffee was served us out of a brilliantly shining kettle from the huge old-fashioned stove in the great open fireplace. Everything was so spotlessly clean! The nuns certainly took good care of the children. The girls' dormitories were neat, here and there brightened by a piece of coloured cloth or a picture or a bit of ribbon. There were only the barest necessities, and none too many of them. The girls were taught to do the housework and to sew, in addition to their regular school studies. They were all dressed in black and the Mother Superior bemoaned the fact that the Abbé simply could not keep them in shoes. Several classes were assembled to sing for us, Belgian and French songs, and finally in my honour the nearest they could come to anything American, "God Save the King"—at least that was in the "strange lady's" language—English.

I wandered away from the others and out of doors into the garden. There were the real babies, most of them just big enough to walk. They were digging and playing, twenty-five or more of them, in charge of a couple of the older girls and one nurse. I sat down on a broken stump and tried to make love to one of the little boys. He was awfully shy at first and would just look at me out of his big blue eyes. All of a sudden he toddled over to the other side of the yard and after him toddled the whole bunch. He was certainly a coming leader. In the far corner was a perfect carpet of dandelions. Each baby picked one or two and, like a flock of little chicks, they came tumbling back again to present me with the flowers. It was too sweet for words and the tears came to my eyes. I wanted to hug them all.... If only all the little war orphans were cared for as well as these in charge of the good Abbé! May money and supplies never fail to come to him for this good work.

(Miss Spencer then describes her visit to the military depots where the soldiers receive the comfort packets sent to the soldiers by our American women; she tells of the gratitude of the soldiers and how they idolize the women in far away America who are thinking of them and working for them. She then narrates her experiences in the Italian war zone, with this appeal to Americans: "Is there really one of us with a heart and mind who dares to let twenty-four hours pass without dropping his mite of time, sympathy or money into the brave hand of suffering Europe! Men, women and children, they need us! If we do all we can, then we are not doing half enough! The horror of their suffering is hideous! The magnificence of their sacrifice is sublime!")

  Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.

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